Lauren Thomas is a senior at Northwestern University majoring in Economics and Political Science. She was the driving force behind the recent passage of resolutions in support of viewpoint diversity on campus.
I’ve always been fascinated by legal and moral cases on freedom of speech and students, ever since I first read about Tinker v Des Moines in high school. Upon arriving at Northwestern, I began following the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) blog avidly, noting with approval that Northwestern (mostly) erred on the side of more speech rather than less.
Then came the events on campuses throughout the country during the 2015-2016 school year. At Northwestern, one professor resigned over the administration censuring a faculty-produced bioethics journal and another, Professor Laura Kipnis, faced a full-length Title IX investigation over an article written about sexual politics on campus (I’m told that the Title IX Office can now dismiss complaints right away if they find them to be without merit, which may not have been the case at the time). The incidents landed Northwestern on FIRE’s list of worst colleges for free speech in 2016, and garnered a lower than average rating on Heterodox Academy’s Guide to Colleges, and though I thought that was a bit harsh, I was concerned about protecting speech on campus. Generally, the campus climate is friendly to speech—student groups have brought “controversial” speakers with nary a peep from the student body. Students are free to express their opinions anywhere on campus, so long as it doesn’t disrupt university activities.
However, judging from the events that have occurred at other universities, and the willingness of universities administrations to go along with censorship, I was worried about the possibility of speech becoming curtailed at Northwestern.
Simultaneously, I became concerned about the importance of viewpoint diversity, specifically as it related to the future of social science research. There’s convincing evidence that diversity leads to greater innovation and creativity, and can help guard against the biases that can doom research; however, universities have become ever more ideologically homogenous in recent years. It’s all too easy to overlook research errors when the research reaches a conclusion that you like, which is the opposite of what researchers need.
With these motivations in mind, I began writing the resolution on free speech and academic diversity; I originally wrote the first draft myself, and then reached out to others at my school to get their feedback. I tried to reach out to students from across the political spectrum—from social justice activists to the senator for College Republicans—because I believed that the issues in my resolution were relevant to students regardless of their political background. I went through several iterations of my resolution; originally, I had referenced the Laura Kipnis incident, but I removed those references due to the sensitivity and confidentiality around Title IX complaints. I didn’t face too much pushback at this time, outside of the Kipnis piece, and people were, for the most part, very receptive—but that could be because I purposefully targeted students who I felt had shown support for viewpoint diversity and free speech in the past. Even so, one senator who liked the bill did not agree to endorse it, because the group that she represented hated the bill; they were concerned that the language in the bill would protect “hateful” speakers. I also added language about protecting student protests, to appeal to the students in our government who often participated in or supported protests at Northwestern.
When my resolution came to the student government, there were further discussions around the language. The senators eventually voted to remove references to FIRE, because they felt the organization was too partisan; they also didn’t want to endorse the Chicago Principles for Freedom of Speech, and instead added language summarizing the Principles. I did not support these changes, but I also realized that the resolution passing was the greater good, and I didn’t feel that the changes removed anything essential from the resolution. There was a senator who attempted to remove the language about protecting viewpoint diversity because he believed that it was implicitly stating that Republicans were a marginalized group on campus—however, that argument did not convince anyone, much to my relief, and he was the only person (out of 45+ students) to vote to remove the language about viewpoint diversity. Interestingly, there was a lot more resistance to the free speech parts of the bill than the viewpoint diversity parts—I’m not sure why this was, but it was affirming to realize that students at Northwestern cared about having diverse opinions around them and especially in the classroom.
Eventually, the resolution came up for a vote, and it passed, with very few nays. In fact, most of the resistance to the final draft of the bill came from the student government executive board, who are not allowed to vote on legislation, and not from the senators themselves.
With the passage of the resolution, I hope that I have guaranteed a more open campus; unfortunately, as a senior, I don’t really have the capacity to organize around this issue—but I made other students on campus aware of this bill, so that they could use it as a defense should any issues around free speech or viewpoint diversity arise.
I am afraid, though, that self-appointed “defenders” of free speech approach this issue without the nuance or care that it deserves. There will always be those who oppose speech they disagree with, but calling students “special snowflakes” or denigrating “safe spaces” (if they do not trespass on the public domain, they are merely an expression of freedom of assembly, another right guaranteed to us in the First Amendment) or “trigger warnings” (so long as they are voluntary and do not have the effect of banning certain media in the classroom, they are also another expression of academic freedom) without any kind of nuanced opinions on the issue run the risk of alienating too many students. Had I approached this resolution as being a response to safe spaces or trigger warnings, it never would have passed the student government; instead, I had a wide base of support, because many students recognized that these issues are not partisan—even though the outside world often views them as such. If I could give advice to other free speech activists, I would tell them not to alienate social justice activists just for the sake of feeling self-righteous, and instead try to listen and approach their concerns with an open mind.
Many years ago, students, and social justice activists at that, were the most stalwart defenders of free speech; now that the tables have turned, it’s important not to fall into the trap and the hypocrisy of making speech a partisan issue. I am similarly concerned about Donald Trump and college radicals in their rejection of speech, and I urge students everywhere to realize that speech is not a conservative nor a liberal issue—it is one that affects us both equally, and at different times.